Apparently, Americans Don’t Know They Are Overweight

Honestly, I knew I was not a healthy weight. Privately, I called myself fat. Good for my self esteem? Probably not. But it’s how I referred to myself. If I had been asked the same question as a Harris Interactive/Health Day poll asked, I might have failed as well.

According to Health Day News on Thursday, September 2, 2010, 30 percent of Americans do not have an accurate perception of their current weight. I found this very interesting, as I probably wouldn’t have given an accurate answer.

Here’s what the study found:

Thirty percent of those in the “overweight” class believed they were actually normal size, while 70 percent of those classified as obese felt they were simply overweight. Among the heaviest group, the morbidly obese, almost 60 percent pegged themselves as obese, while another 39 percent considered themselves merely overweight.

In case you forget, and I try to – here are the “official definitions” based on BMI.

Underweight: BMI below 18.5

Normal Weight: BMI of 18.5 to 24.9

Overweight: BMI of 25.0 to 29.9

Obese, Class 1: BMI of 30.0 to 34.9

Obese, Class 2: BMI of 35 to 39.9

Morbid Obesity: BMI 40+ 

When you got started on your journey, did you just “know” you needed to lose weight – or could you have articulated what category of “weight” you fell in?

Did I need to know the “name of my fat” when I was overweight? Not really. I understood that at 5’10” and 305 pounds I was in trouble. According to the BMI standards, I was in the morbidly obese category with a BMI of 43.8. Whatever you feel about BMI, it is one indicator that medical professionals often use.

For me, knowing that I needed to lose weight for my health was enough of a motivation for me to eventually get my act together and lose over 150 pounds. Labelling myself as obese or overweight wouldn’t have motivated me. What motivated me was realizing that I was going to continue getting stuck in chairs, miss out on riding the roller coaster with my kids and possibly shorten my life. That was motivating.

My question is: Does it matter that so many overweight and obese Americans underestimated how their weight fell within the ranges – or was the question irrelevant because of the “labeling” factors? Diane

37 thoughts on “Apparently, Americans Don’t Know They Are Overweight

  1. blackhuff says:

    I think it’s scary that overweight & obese people (not only Americans) underestimate in what ranges their weight falls in. I was also one of these kinds of people who did underestimate in which range my weight fell in until I saw how appalled I made someone by how I looked like. That was the final thing that made me realise that I have to do something about my weight.
    I think that most people are not educated enough about BMI and that is why they think they are healthier than they actually are.

  2. Alissa says:

    I don’t like the BMI calculations. I don’t know how accurate they are as they don’t factor in anything except weight and height. I didn’t know I was morbidly obese when I started this journey- so I guess the study is true! Good news- I’m now in Obese class #2- which when I found that out was discouraging for me after almost 70 lbs. lost- another reason I don’t like the BMI! 😉

  3. Roxie says:

    I would tie this back to us not knowing that our portions are overweight. Some people perhaps don’t realize that they are overeating and therefore overweight because the portion sizes have grown. That, of course, wasn’t my issue, but for those only in the overweight category, it might be true.

  4. vickie says:

    I have used the bmi chart as a tool to help me get to goal. and it has been very useful to me. I didn’t take it personally. I thought of it as a fact – like a science experiment.

    What I wanted was to be healthy (not get diabetes, and I was right on the edge) and I wanted (very badly) to get rid of my belly fat.

    And the bmi told me what I had to do to achieve those two goals.

    I started out in
    Obese class 2
    and after six months of effort moved to the very high end of obese class 1.

    I don’t know my starting bmi, because I did not get on the scale (at all) for the first 6 mos.

    So all I know is I was at bmi of 34.7 after 6 mos of daily effort.

    I am now at 21.8 and that is what it took to get rid of my belly fat.

    On the way down the scale – I didn’t fight what bmi charts were telling me. I simply wanted to know – where do I have to be in order to have the belly fat GONE. I appreciated KNOWING.

    The site I use (and love) is:

    if you click around, there is a lot of information there.

    and I think it does indeed matter (to know where we are). It is reality. And I think we have to deal with reality.

    I love that you are up front about your reality. Getting stuck in chairs and being stuck wearing your jumpers.

  5. Jules - Big Girl Bombshell says:

    I think the question is irrelevant because of labeling. We know when we are overweight whether it is called fat, overweight, obese, or morbidly obese. WE KNOW! We know when our health is affected, our self-esteem, and our emotions.

  6. Tracey @ I'm Not Superhuman says:

    I read that poll and it’s concerning. You always hear if you’re overweight … yada yada yada. Or, obese people have a great risk of … blah blah blah. Well if you don’t know you fall into those categories you might not think it applies to you. I think it has to do with the fact that it’s normal to be that size now. If everyone around you is overweight, you don’t feel so overweight.

  7. Lori Lynn says:

    I think it’s hard when you have so many different perspectives. On one hand you should be a size 0, based on the celebrities, magazines, and tv shows you see. Then there’s there’s the “I’m okay with me- big is beautiful” message of self-acceptance. You also have the “Biggest Loser” weight loss of people trying to lose weight– though it kind of has an okay message, the way they go about doing it, isn’t exactly realistic. There’s a lot of mixed messages out there of what is okay, so I’m sure there are a lot of people that don’t know what to think!

  8. Colleen says:

    I find that currently being on the very edge of “overweight” versus “normal weight” is highly motivating to get that number back into the category into which it should be. That’s for me, however. When I figure my hubby’s BMI, I don’t find that calculation to be as accurate – on our Wii Fit, it figures him to be “obese” and he is most definitely NOT. It does seem to be a better calculation for women than men because the BMI does not account for muscle.

  9. Desert Agave says:

    When I was 302 pounds I definitely knew I was in the morbidly obese category. Now it is funny; I’ve been told to disregard BMI. My dietitian and trainer recently told me that my goal of 150 pounds (the very top of the healthy weight category in the weight charts for my height)might be unrealistic and that instead once I reach about 165 I should start looking at body fat percentage and go by that, because BMI didn’t really apply to athletes (which she says I am now).

  10. Deb Willbefree says:

    Hmm. Interesting post.

    I don’t think it matters one bit if someone doesn’t realize where the line is between overweight and obese and morbidly obese. As you said, we know we’re FAT!

    BUT I do think it is dangerous to NOT know that you are overweight. Those people who are overweight and think they are normal–well, that’s a problem.

    Of course, in our society they ARE normal, aren’t they?
    I mean the percentage of Americans who are above their ideal weight is quite large.

    So I guess the problem is that Americans think being overweight is fine–because it is the norm for our society. We need to understand the difference between normal and healthy. They, obviously, are not the same thing.

    Of course, right now, I’m kind of enjoying just being “normal”. chuckle.


    • Diane says:

      Deb – you bring up a good point. Overweight/obese Americans make up about 66 percent of the adult population. That is the new normal. Hopefully one person at a time, we can change the tide.

  11. Andrea@WellnessNotes says:

    I think labels don’t really matter, but I think sometimes it’s easy to trick ourselves in thinking that we are really not as heavy as we are. When I gained a lot of weight (and was clearly overweight), I didn’t weigh myself for months and only wore elastic pants. I didn’t acknowledge what a large amount of weight I had gained in a very short period of time. Once I finally stepped on the scale, I had to acknowledge what I had done to my body and that the extra food to cope with stress and the lack of exercise was not good for me.

  12. Marcelle says:

    Its not only American’s ~ when I came to Germany nearly 6 years ago I never saw fat people, everyone was what I consider a good healthy weight…but over the last two years I have noticed more and more obese people but not adults…teenagers…it breaks my heart, I wish I could reach out to them…

  13. shanilie says:

    Thank you for visiting my new blog. I have enjoyed looking at yours. I can only DREAM of being where you are now. So amazing that you came from 305lbs. Looking forward to getting to know you more 🙂

    I was am still am to some extent the same way. I look at larger people and think “i’m not that big, then I realize I am”

  14. JourneyBeyondSurvival says:

    I think it is a problem if people are avoiding the truth about themselves. I wouldn’t look at myself properly, look at photos, and turn away from bulging seams. I was only fooling myself, because I’d always think, “Oh. I don’t really look like that at all. I just have to turn a little bit that way.”

    Only, life isn’t a mirror or camera. Everyone else sees everything. I was like the Emperor and his new clothes.

  15. Chris says:

    I have to say that it’s creeping over that overweight line into obese that horrifies me and motivates me. I started at about 200 and then I was down to about 163 pounds and then I crept up 20 last year, which put me over the line again. EEEEK! So I’ve lost again…not all of it, but about 8 so far and am back below.

  16. Hadley says:

    I do think it’s a problem when people don’t realize they’re overweight or obese. Like, I know I’m fat, but I’m morbidly obese. It’s easy to tell I’m carrying far too much weight. If I was 176 pounds (obese for my height) and didn’t pay attention to weight, I’d know I was overweight, but I doubt I’d recognize (or look) obese. And that’s a problem. Similarly, someone at my height who weight 150 (below the average woman) might think of herself as normal, but she’d actually be overweight, with all the health risks that entails.

    I think because the really fat people (like me) define fat and skew our perspectives, all these other people who are overweight and even slightly obese might not recognize that they are also facing problems.

    On a personal level, dropping the title of morbidly obese is a huge personal motivator.

  17. RNegade says:

    This topic is too complicated to address in a brief comment! But… 🙂

    Basically, once a person has been obese for an extensive period (more than a pregnancy, for instance), it may not be realistic to expect very many of them to achieve a “healthy” category BMI. If they can, like you Diane, that’s great!

    We might want all patients to do that, but if BMI under 25 is seen as the only way to be “healthy” then we are sending the wrong message. There are many factors involving what is “healthy” and what is HEALTHIER. If patients can get their blood pressure normalized through exercise and improved eating (like with a Dash Diet of more vegetables and less salt), or keep their fasting glucose below 100, then their health may improve significantly (less risk of heart disease and reduced risk of diabetes & cancer).

    If we continue to think (preach to the public?) in terms of BMI categories (healthy, overweight, obese), then many people adopt a kind of all or nothing mentality…they believe that achieving a lower blood pressure and normalized blood glucose, or improved immunity, isn’t good enough because they are *still* overweight, or obese. (They are still not *healthy*, in their eyes, and in terms of BMI.) Unfortunately, that kind of all or nothing thinking is potentially deadly.

    People should also be encouraged to exercise and eat more nutritiously for the benefits that have nothing to do with weight loss (improved circulation and better immunity, etc). When we focus too much on weight, we often sabotage people’s efforts to improve health.

    Thanks for loaning me the soap box. :0

    • Diane says:

      You can have the soap box anytime! 🙂 I completely understand what you are saying. It can be overwhelming to say, “I’ve got to lose 100 pounds,” and much more manageable to encourage everyone (overweight or not) to focus more on nutrition and movement. Then the weight becomes secondary as the health/fitness improves. Hopefully the weight reduction happens as the nutrition levels increase.

  18. Leah says:

    I think it does matter a little bit that people are underestimating the depth of their unhealthy weight simply because I know that there are probably many out there who do not realize that even 20-30 pounds overweight is unhealthy. I’m sure there are many who watch The Biggest Loser, for example, and think to themselves, “I’m not THAT big, so I don’t need to lose weight.”

    I could easily say that now at 5’4″ and 194 lbs wearing a 16w, because there are women on that show well above 200 pounds and doing absolutely no exercise. I workout 3-4 days a week, including some jogging now. They make me look thin, but in reality I’m 50 pounds over the highest healthy weight for my height and age.

    While I don’t think the labels will help all to understand the need to lose excess weight, I do think too many of us easily fool ourselves into thinking we’re okay when we’re not at all.

    Very interesting and thought provoking post, Diane. Thanks for making us think.

  19. Dr. J says:

    I’m very happy and rather proud of your readers for not criticizing the BMI.

    I also support being as healthy as you can be.

    Disease is a stern master, if you are overweight or beyond, your risk goes up as your weight goes up. Do the best you can, and medicine will do its best to be there for you on your journey.

  20. Tami says:

    I don’t think labels matter. What motivated me was seeing what I looked like in some photos. The reality hit me in the face and I had to change.

  21. Cynthia (It All Changes) says:

    I hate those numbers from the BMI scale because when my doctor says I’m as healthy as I should be my BMI says I’m still overweight.

    However I don’t think it’s odd that people underestimate. We underestimate portion sizes and clothe sizes and everything in the country. This doesn’t surprise me at all.

  22. Little Bee says:

    Hm, I’m a bit of two minds about this. Yes, it’s dangerous if you delude yourself about your size. But on the other hand, BMI is a tool with some flaws (muscle vs fat, where the fat sits, taller people appear to be judged more strictly, possibly more).

    For myself, a fairly short person with a small frame, I believe the BMI to be to generous, actually. I must focus on the size of my belly – well, and of course above all my eating habits! I think eating and exercise habits are more important than the weight/clothing size anyway.

  23. LovesCatsinCA says:

    Hi, Diane.

    I don’t think people realize how heavy they really are sometimes because we have other friends who carry excess weight. I have people at work tell me I’m “skinny”. Maybe in comparison to myself 3 years ago, but I’m really just “normal.” If they saw me in high school, they would have seen “skinny!” People forget what normal weight is supposed to look like. And that’s sad.

    Additionally, the “average woman” in America is an average of what is—not an ideal—so as “average” creeps upward, the mental norm of what people look like, changes. When I was around 4 or 5, I totally embarrassed my mother by pointing at the escalator going the other way in a department store at a morbidly obese woman and saying (loudly, of course)—“Mommy—look at that lady! She’s so FAT!!!” It was that unusual in those days.

    I didn’t know my BMI a few years ago. I had so gradually gained a few pounds a year, I knew I wasn’t thin anymore, but I didn’t know I was technically overweight by US BMI standards–or obese by Japanese BMI standards which is my heritage. (Japan: 18.5 to 22.9 is normal, 23 to 24.9 is overweight and obese starts at 25…probably because most people have small frames–I know I do. The mean BMI in Japan is around 22.) In fact, although I knew I needed to lose weight to do something about severe hypertension, I didn’t know how much. And, quite frankly, I had bought into the myth of “it’s normal to gain weight as you age,” probably because I had started expanding at around 35.

    I’m five feet tall. My blood pressure was doing better and I’d gone from 140 to 127 and was feeling pretty good about myself–and had found out about BMI at that point, so I thought “24.8–I’m now in ‘normal’ range.” Then I had a trainer at my gym take my bodyfat percentage. Oh, my. He didn’t actually use the “obese” word. But he told me the percentage and that it wasn’t an acceptable, healthy percentage and I could see the chart on the wall—I was at the lowest percentage of obesity.

    What??? I exercise! I lost weight!!! I lost a size!!! I was indignant. But my numbers didn’t lie… I also had a driver’s license that told me that I had weighed 115 in my early 30s.

    BMI isn’t super accurate for people who are super athletes, particularly those who have a lot of muscle, who can register as overweight without being overfat–but I’d suggest that for people on the borderline of normal versus overweight, to check their fat. More likely is that someone on the high end of normal BMI will be overly fat like I was in terms of healthy body composition.

    I’m glad I didn’t fall into complacency about 13 pounds being “good enough” and pre-hypertension rather than super high blood pressure being “okay.” I lost 17 more pounds (total 30 pounds—what a difference) and two more sizes and my blood pressure normalized. My bodyfat percentage still isn’t exactly lean, but it’s within normal, desirable levels for someone in her 40s. I’d still be overly fat if I were 20 years younger. But I’m not.

    I do recognize that I might have ended up five pounds heavier and still been healthy. I don’t think we need to be too hard on ourselves over a little extra weight—and I still have a little “laughing Buddha” belly pooch. But I do know that eating healthily, exercising and having as healthy a body as one can, makes a huge difference. Take it from someone who knows a kidney transplant recipient who has a new lease on life—things like diabetes or hypertension can take a huge toll on one’s health and life.

  24. CK says:

    Don’t forget “skinny” mirrors and vanity sizing — which has gone on for years with women’s clothing, and was recently revealed to have been going on with men’s pants, too.

    Add to that the likelihood that most generally overweight people don’t like to weigh themselves, as a couple of commenters pointed out (I didn’t — I estimated my highest weight and got on the scale after I was a few weeks into weight loss), and it doesn’t surprise me that there’s this disconnect.

    But for folks who don’t have a body-sense of their own overweightness — I find that hard to believe, truly.

    BMI, LDL/HDL, blood pressure, the scale — these are all useful tools for goal-setting, but they’re one-size-fits-all tools, and there are some I rely on more than others to gauge my own health. LovesCatsinCA nailed it by talking about how much better we feel when we take care of ourselves in spite of all the numbers we have to wade through.

  25. Fran says:

    I use BMI as a guideline but it’s not leading for me.

    The same kind of study has been done in Holland too with the same results: people think they are less overweighted than they really are.

    I find it worrying (sorry don’t know the right word) that so many children are overweighted today, I see it in my neighbourhood. I really think that obesity is becoming health problem number one in the Western countries.

  26. Jody - Fit at 52 says:

    I think it matters that people do not know these things because it effects their health & life & how long they may live…. I think that is important.

    BMI does not work exactly right for me due to having so much muscle but we are more the exception then the rule so I think people ought to pay attention… for those like me, we already know that our muscle changes things…

  27. Quix says:

    I knew I needed to lose weight but I never really understood HOW much I needed. I had convinced myself that being skinny was for young people.

    Right now I’m still technically overweight, but I’m working on those last 10 lbs. =) Need to stop doing crazy training and maybe I can get there…

  28. Paramjit says:

    Self denial is the first sign of trouble. Those who do not have self denial will recognize the problem. Some people need a longer time to get over the self denial. Some people need a jolt, such as a warning from a doctor. This could be a natural process that someone needs to go through before they can become serious about losing weight. The only challenge is that some people end up being in self-denial their entire lives.

  29. John W. Zimmer says:

    Hi Diane,

    I think the key here is what motivates one to action. I mean is the label (or mis-label) causing in-action?

    I do know single guys that still think they are studs and do not realize that women like them because of their cool cars and money. Kind of sad.

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